Category: Helicopter (page 1 of 20)

I have more than I need, so I give back

Many of us have friends on Facebook that we follow but may have never met in person. Such is the case for Joshua Knowlton and me. It all started with Oregon and airplanes, but my esteem for Joshua has grown over the years so I want to tell you about him. He is 40 years old and has been working in aviation for about 7 years. He has been an A&P for 5 years, and an IA for 2 years. He says, of his careers, “I dropped out of high school when I was 16 and didn’t go to college until I was 32. I have worked in a slaughterhouse, I’ve been a professional cook, a sewing machine technician, a painter, and I drove a tow-truck for 7 years before starting college. “

He attended Lane Aviation Academy at Lane Community College in Oregon and was awarded several scholarships and finished first in his class with a 4.02 cumulative GPA. He started working at PJ Helicopters soon after graduation from A&P School and worked there for a little over 3 years. After that he started working with his friend and fellow alum Kyle Bushman, restoring antique airplanes. “Since I have my own 1942 Piper L4A Grasshopper that I am restoring I thought this would be a good transition. We worked together for about a year before I decided to get back into rotor craft since I was so attracted to them. I started working for Hillsboro Aviation about a year ago. That is where I currently work and I love my job”, he says.

Joshua is a humble person when talking about his work as a philanthropist. He probably would bristle at me calling him that. He states simply, “I am in a position now where I feel like I have more than I need and I want to be able to give back. This is why I am trying to do good and help others and raise money for causes I support.” I remember he posted on Facebook saying he wanted to take his daughter and her school friend to Disneyland. That quickly turned in to her school friend and her two sisters who were all homeless. He was able to raise over $1800 to help pay their expenses and had a fabulous time at Disneyland. If that isn’t philanthropy I don’t know what is.

After that he decided to start his own scholarship at the A&P school that he attended. “I wanted to pay for one student’s written FAA mechanic exams (about $500) but after talking to a couple of people I raised $300 from them and decided to pull a couple hundred more dollars out of my pocket and pay for the written exams for two students” he says. He calls this scholarship the “Anna Marie Shurden Scholarship for Positive Change”, named after a fellow student who beat the odds and overcame many personal difficulties to finish school and get a job in the aviation industry and continues to be a success. His goal for 2019 is to raise enough money to pay for both the oral and practical exams as well as the written exam for one deserving student. The link for the fundraiser for 2019 is:

Joshua says, “I would like to point out that I am a member of Women in Aviation and my scholarship is geared toward (but not exclusive to) females that are pursuing a career in aviation maintenance. I am a firm believer that this industry needs more women. Not just pilots but mechanics also. “

Joshua was poor as a kid and didn’t have a lot of opportunities. He’s never been out of the country. “Aviation has given me the life I always wanted and has given me opportunities that I never thought I would have. Whenever I have the chance I want to help out other people who are in the place where I was. They just need a hand up to get to a better place and have a chance at the life they have always wanted. I do my best. I am grateful. I work hard.” Be like Joshua.


Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: Twitter: Mooney4Me

Radius of range

Whether flying helicopters or airplanes, sometimes it may be necessary to modify a flight plan enroute to incorporate an alternate route, altitude or destination. If plan A isn’t working, relax, there are plenty more letters in the alphabet.

Diligent planning prior to takeoff helps ensure that altering a plan in flight won’t be cause for concern. Whatever change is considered, it must be within the capabilities of the aircraft with regards to the amount of safe fuel onboard. The range of the aircraft, considering the amount of safe fuel and current environmental conditions, is called the radius of range (ROR). The ROR is never static, but constantly changing throughout flight.

Many of us fly aircraft over desolate areas of the West and Alaska, or offshore to oilrigs where refueling locations and helidecks are few and far between. Though helicopters have some advantages over airplanes, range and fuel endurance isn’t usually one of them. Beating the air into submission takes a lot of fuel, with a relatively high fuel consumption to weight ratio as compared to airplanes. On the other hand, while airplanes tend to have more range than helicopters, they are more restricted on where they can land. Both aircraft have their advantages, and all pilots need to continually assess available options which may be affected during flight due to changing weather and wind conditions, aircraft performance and condition, and the amount of safe fuel remaining. Safe fuel is the amount of fuel not including a reserve; the reserve being the greater of what is required by FAA regulation or what the pilot considers necessary.

Many pilots regard fuel planning as a linear calculation, where only the departure and destination points are considered. The formula for point of no return (PNR) is such a calculation that does not consider options off the route of flight. The PNR is a specific point along the route where should the aircraft fly beyond, it will lack sufficient fuel to turn back and safely land at the departure location with a reserve remaining. Below is the formula for PNR in minutes and conversion to PNR in miles.

Safe fuel (minutes) x GS2, divided by GS2 + GS1  = PNR (minutes)

PNR (minutes) x GS1, divided by 60 = PNR (miles)

  1. GS2 is the ground speed opposite of the course to be flown.
  2. GS1 is the ground speed on the course to be flown.

Using the two formulas one can determine the PNR for a flight in terms of the number of minutes flown and the number of miles flown. Subtract the PNR miles from the total route miles to determine the amount of miles remaining to the destination, which may be more useful when viewing a GPS or FMS. While PNR for a flight is a useful calculation, it is a linear 1-dimensional calculation and we can do much better adding more dimensions to our planning.

Most of the time a flight will have more options available than simply the departure and destination locations, and so we find the old PNR formula and that way of thinking to be insufficient. Let’s add another dimension and consider not just the route of flight, but also the possibility of changing course anytime should changing conditions dictate using the ROR concept.

I recently flew a helicopter from Anchorage to the Leonardo Helicopters factory in Philadelphia, which was more than 3200 nautical miles with 14 fuel stops. ROR flight planning was a critical aspect, especially during the first few days through Alaska and western Canada. However, it would increase the margin of safety for any cross-country flight, regardless of where one is flying.

The ROR is the distance the aircraft is capable of flying at any given point, and is represented by a large circle around the current aircraft position. The radius of that circle is dictated by the amount of safe fuel on board, cruise speed, and winds aloft. Let’s use a heavily loaded AW139 flying at 150 knots only carrying 1.3 hours of safe fuel as an example. In calm winds, the ROR at takeoff would be 195 miles, which is the maximum distance it could fly and still land with a reserve remaining.  During flight as fuel is consumed the ROR will naturally decrease.

chart 1

On this chart, the yellow circle depicts the ROR departing from Burns, Oregon. At this point, the aircraft is just starting to consume fuel and the ROR is at its largest. We can see at takeoff the destination is just within the ROR, indicating a planned landing with just the fuel reserve remaining. As the flight progresses and fuel is consumed the ROR decreases, and there becomes a point a little over halfway where returning to the departure point is no longer an option, corresponding to the PNR. The orange circle is the ROR at 93 nautical miles, the halfway point of the flight. As we near the destination the ROR continues to decrease to the point where many fewer options are available and at a certain point the only course of action is to land at the destination. The red circle is the ROR at 140 nautical miles. There are just four other airports within the ROR at 140 nautical miles and in another 20 nautical miles there won’t be any, other than the destination itself.

In the chart below we have essentially the same ROR chart, but with a 20-knot wind out of the west. As one can see, all the ROR circles offset downwind. This graphically shows that with a strong wind condition one is usually better off turning downwind for an alternate option, as there is more area within the ROR downwind than there is upwind.

chart 2

Let’s add the third dimension to consider: altitude. Note that everything within the ROR may not necessarily be a viable option. It is possible that parts of the area within the ROR are further constrained by high terrain and weather. Maybe a ceiling prevents a climb in VFR to a necessary altitude in order to safely clear a mountain ridge east of course. Or maybe its getting near the end of the day when daylight will be waning and crossing a mountainous area in VFR flight without much illumination isn’t safe. We obviously don’t live in a flat world and must consider altitude.

The last dimension is time, and is considered throughout the flight. A prudent pilot will assess if weather currently reported is better or worse than forecast, and try to get an idea of what the trend is up ahead and near the destination. On this particular flight a pilot would make early and careful assessments as to winds aloft, changing current weather conditions, and amended forecasts along the route of flight and areas inside the ROR. Should one encounter a worse than planned condition, such as a stronger headwind or worse than forecast weather enroute, making a decision to alter the planned flight in the early stages is better than in the later stages. In the early stages more options are available and one can carefully choose the best, whereas in the later stages of the flight options will have dwindled along with fuel. With deteriorating conditions this flight could evolve into a situation supporting the old adage; a superior pilot uses superior judgment to avoid the necessity of using superior skill. As we know, superior judgment for a pilot is using all available information to determine what risk may present in the future, and then determine a course of action to avoid or mitigate that risk.

chart 3

The final chart is an example how a pilot might incorporate terrain issues, forecast weather and NOTAMs into the ROR chart. One can add notes along with the depicted ROR circles. Maybe weather forecast to the west towards Pendleton and Walla Walla indicates marginal VFR conditions. One may consider taking those areas out of the ROR, especially coming from higher terrain where it may not be possible to safely get under a cloud layer. To the east is higher terrain, which may block access in that direction; it is also the windward side of a mountain area, which tends to collect a lot of cloud cover. Also noted is a NOTAM for an airport along the route of flight for fuel out of service, though it could still be used for a safe landing as one of the last options. Airports circled in green highlighter represent good enroute options should a diversion with landing become prudent, such as when facing deteriorating weather or an aircraft problem of some kind.

Of course if things really get bad, let’s call it plan Z, we can usually find a place to just land. Helicopters definitely have an advantage over airplanes for landing off-airport, though I’ve seen some amazing bush pilots in Alaska. Plan Z is certainly better than running out of fuel or flying into dangerous weather, and sometimes, JUST LAND is the best option. During my power line patrol days in the 1980s, I knew many of the farmers along the route from visits during the summer. These farms made for some good alternates during the winter, when I would occasionally land for a welcomed cup of coffee to wait out the odd snowstorm.

The ROR certainly doesn’t provide everything a pilot needs to think about but it does help with a graphic visualization of areas available throughout the flight. Next cross-country flight, get a sectional chart out and make some ROR circles using a highlighter along the route of flight. Use any color and at any increments you desire. Remember to offset the ROR circles downwind, in relation to wind speed and time of flight. For example, a 40-knot wind would have an offset of 40 nautical miles for an hour flight, 60 nautical miles offset for a 1.5-hour flight, and an 80 nautical mile offset for a 2-hour flight.

Once in flight, there isn’t much a pilot can do to alter the aircraft ROR.  Consider how slowing down to a maximum range cruise speed will increase the ROR.  Hopefully, your Rotorcraft Flight Manual will have fuel consumption charts, if not you will have to rely on past experience for fuel consumption rates.

Maybe someday flight planning and moving map apps, such as Foreflight will provide an enhanced ROR map overlay option, but for now a couple of colored pens and a trusty sectional chart will suffice.

Markus Lavenson is currently flying for Era Helicopters as a captain in the Sikorsky S92 and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in oil and gas support missions. His varied career began shortly after graduating from the University of California at Davis, and has included everything from flight instruction and powerline patrol to HEMS and external load operations. His more than 10,000 hours of flight time comes from more than a dozen different types of helicopters and airplanes. Holding an ATP helicopter and commercial multi-engine fixed-wing, he also is a flight instructor fixed-wing and instrument flight instructor helicopters. Lavenson enjoys the intricate work of helicopter instrument flying, whether it’s to an airport on Alaska’s North Slope or one he creates to an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore.

Increase Your Service Ceiling

Sunday was a great GA day for me. It started off as a Pilots and Paws rescue flight for a one-eyed cat named Gio. Since I was headed up to the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought I would contact my 96 year-old pen pal/friend William Mason [Army Air Corps Flight Instructor at Rankin Field [Tulare, CA] with my Dad, and brother to uber famous Sammy Mason] to see if we could meet up for a burger at the 29er Diner. The combination of a charity flight, using a friendly small airport and meeting with a WWII aviator makes for a perfect GA day.

As a recently minted instrument rated pilot I was excited to get a little “actual” with the smoke and haze from the horrible Thomas fire. I completed all my flight planning with Foreflight, Skyvector, and the NOAA site for weather… severe clear except for smoke in vicinity of departure airport, Santa Maria, CA. I filed the flight plan online and got an email from Foreflight that it was received by flight service [she thinks “What a rock star I am for using all this wonderful technology.”]

Originally Pilots and Paws had requested Santa Rosa Airport, which is a wonderful larger airport, but, as anyone who has flown with me to Oshkosh knows, I love to go to small GA airports and support more “mom and pop” FBOs. So I asked for Petaluma and received that as a final destination.

When I left the house in morning the sky looked like dusk instead of dawn due to the smoke. I could see that San Luis Obispo was clear, so I thought at most, I would be in the smoke [IFR] for a few minutes. Opening the hangar door I could see a fine layer of ash all over my airplane cover. As I loaded up the plane I looked out and saw the tiniest of tiny suns trying to burn through the smoke. [Gio was not able to make it to Santa Maria due to the high winds and turbulence in Riverside, but I decided to head north anyway.]

I got my taxi clearance and asked tower for my IFR clearance to Petaluma. The next bit of news was not so happy “6619U I have no IFR flight plan for you in the system.” Drat! I mentioned that I had even gotten an email confirmation. Hmmm. I let the lovely tower folks [really they are, no sarcasm there] know when I was done taxiing I would figure it out. Figure it out I did. Guess who filed the plan for a WEEK from today? Me, yup me. Duh. Luckily I had the routing, so no worries, got it put into the system. I departed on the obstacle departure procedure and up to the Bay Area. The smoke was maybe 800 feet above ground level… maybe. I was in the smoke, I mean in the smoke. Could not see anything, nothing but white. “Okay sister, this is what you are trained for, instrument scan, track the course, you can do this. Probably won’t be but a minute or two.” Yeah—no. Just under thirty minutes later I come out of the smoke right over the Paso Robles airport. I knew that my VOR tracking was not the best while in the smoke. I was disappointed that I sort of got flustered but I was able to just regain my composure and soldier on.

I flew up the Pacific coast and the CAVU day was spectacular. ATC was super busy and very helpful. I asked for the Bay Tour [as did about a hundred others] and was grinning ear to ear flying over the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the San Francisco bay. After the tour and the photos, I turned to Petaluma [O69].

There were six other airplanes in the pattern at O69/Petaluma. There were a few students working the pattern, a Waco buzzing around, two helicopters practicing taxiing, and even another Mooney landing right before me. The fuel price is one of the best in the Bay Area/wine country. I taxied to a transient tie down and then struggled a bit to push Maggie back into the spot. Before I knew it a local named John was there asking if I needed a hand, which I gladly accepted.

We got on the waiting list for indoor seating at the 29er Diner and the next few hours were spent with Bill and his daughter. We got to enjoy a great lunch, catch up, talk about aviation and some of his glory days. Bill owned a Stearman for many years, which he flew across country with his wife.

When it was time to leave I made sure to check the date and time on my flight plan and hit “File”— voila it went through. I did get vectored in a way from ATC that reminded me of an old high school cheer “lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight.” The routing on the way home was offshore quite a bit. I don’t know about anyone else, but I swear I hear every single engine hiccup when I am over water. On the way home I was at 9000, and got a beautiful and enduring view of the sunset off my right side. I knew that the smoke would be formidable on the approach into the Central Coast. I descended down from 9000 to 8000, then down to 5000. Under the smoke it was black as night. I requested a precision approach from ATC. I thought it best to fly an approach I had practiced many times that took me right to runway 12.

Between the black of night, and the ash build up on the windscreen, and the general haziness from the smoke, the approach was challenging. I did have a little bit of an optical illusion just above the aim point. It was hard for me to tell how high I was above the runway to begin the flare. I should have maybe looked out the left window, but I didn’t. Landing was rock star– which is so wonderful. All in all I had an hour of actual.

We are so fortunate to have many ways to give back in service to others with our airplanes and airports. I try to remember all these aspects when I am planning a trip. Am I flying an empty airplane? Is that the best use of the space? Perhaps there is someone who would like to come along, or better yet a Pilot n Paws, Angel Flight, LightHawk or other charitable cause. What is your destination airport? Where will you be spending your dollars for fuel, lodging and food? The day cost me a couple hundred dollars in fuel. I look at this as money spent buying memories. That is really money well spent. I have the memory of my first flight into IMC, connecting with a WWII aviator, of wanting to help a little one-eyed kitty and of course being part of a great big GA family.

As this year comes to a close it is a good time to reflect on the past and look toward the New Year. Maybe 2018 will be the year you add that endorsement, or get your instrument rating, or get serious about buying into a club, or donate your time in service to others.

Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: Twitter: Mooney4Me

Flying frost control

Frost control is a lot like cherry drying (or blowing) in that it requires you to move above the crops to circulate air. But while cherry drying requires the helicopter to be low and slow so the downwash really shakes up tree branches, frost control’s purpose is to move warm air in a temperature inversion down into the crop area to keep the temperature above freezing.

Frost control flying is done in southern and central California, Florida, and other places throughout the United States. It’s commonly used to control frost over citrus trees, lettuce, and other crops.

My contracts are always in California’s Central Valley, not far from Sacramento, where I cover almond trees. The nuts are susceptible to damage from freezing temperatures from the time they’ve been pollinated until weeks after the nuts begin to form. As my client explained to me, when the nuts are in a gelatinous stage early on, freezing temperatures can destroy them. Because the “ranches” are huge — sometimes hundreds of acres — its not cost effective to install wind machines, as they do in California’s wine country for grapes or Washington’s orchard country for tree fruit. So the helicopters are called in and put on standby.

More about the flying

There are three main differences between flying to dry cherries and flying to control frost:

  • Altitude. Frost control flights are done at a slightly higher altitude. Generally speaking, you want the helicopter high enough to be above the inversion so it can suck that warm air down. The exact altitude varies, but it’s usually at least 30 feet above the ground.
  • Speed. Frost control flights are done faster, slightly above ETL. The goal is to cover the crops quickly, pulling the air down and letting it circulate around. You might have to cover an area multiple times and it’s vital to get the air moving throughout the crops quickly. My first-year client told me that the warm air above a field is normally depleted within 3 hours.
  • Time. Frost control flights are nearly always done at night, usually between 2 a.m. and just after dawn. In most cases, the coldest time of night is right before dawn, so you might have the benefit of some twilight lighting to see where you’re going. But with weather fronts and other factors affecting weather, it’s possible to have to fly in the middle of the night when it’s pitch black.

My Experience

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve had frost contracts for the past four winter/spring seasons and I have yet to be called out to fly. I’ve been put on standby several times and spent more than a few predawn hours parked on the ramp beside my helicopter in the dark, glad that Dutch Brothers has a 24-hour coffee stand between my motel and the airport. But fly? Nope.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t try it. My very first season on contract, 2013, I gave it a go with my friend Jim, who was also there for his first season. We’re both experienced R44 pilots with thousands of hours logged. But neither of us have much experience flying at night so we wanted to get an idea of what we were in for before the call came.

The first night out, we got into my helicopter, waited until 10 p.m. when it was good and dark, and took off. The first challenge was finding the field. Yes, of course I had the GPS coordinates for it, so I zipped right to the general area, flying at 500 feet AGL to avoid power lines and towers. When I spotted the trees below me, I spiraled down, remembering obstacles like wires in the area. I was about 50 feet up when I realized that the bright patch below me wasn’t the almond blossoms of my field shining in the starlight. It was a body of water I knew was about a quarter of a mile away. I hadn’t scouted that area, but I also knew there was an unlighted wind turbine nearby. I got spooked and climbed out, away from where I knew the tower might be. (The tower is now lighted.) We tried another field with slightly better results, but left equally spooked. Clearly, more preparation was necessary.

I use this app to make a clear outline around my almond fields so I know exactly where I am in the dark.

I use this app to make a clear outline around my almond fields so I know exactly where I am in the dark.

We spent the next day scouting our fields again. I picked up an app for my iPad that I could use to map the boundaries of my fields as a track. I could then use my GPS to get into the general area and then see my position over the outline of the field to know exactly where I was. I drove the perimeters of each of my fields to set this up. Jim used a less high-tech method of pinpointing his fields.

That night we went out again, this time in Jim’s ship to find his fields. We — or I guess I should say he — did remarkably well. I was just a passenger keeping an eye out and giving him moral support. But neither of us was happy about the nighttime flights we faced. He said the field owners should have guys down there with flares to guide us. I told him that they expected us to be able to do our job without their help.

Of course, it hasn’t mattered yet. Neither of us was called to fly that year and Jim didn’t come back for additional seasons. I just finished my fourth season — my contracts start in late February and run 60 days — and still haven’t flown. But every year, when I’m assigned my fields, I take that app out and drive the perimeters to mark them. And, of course, I scout them from the ground and from the air at least once during the day.


Like cherry drying, the kind of aircraft most suitable for this work is one that can push a lot of air. Larger aircraft like Hueys and big Sikorskys are pretty commonly used. I’m pretty sure that R44s are the smallest ships they’ll consider.

Light bars rigged to the underside of the helicopter are commonly used for night flying. Another friend of mine who put a ship on contract in 2013 in the same area had a friend build him a light bar with 1400 LED lights. The whole thing could be strapped to the skid legs within minutes and plugged into the electrical system on his Hiller. I never saw it lighted at night, but it was probably visible from space. Of course, his ship didn’t fly that year either.

I bought a pair of DeVore Aviation Triple LED FFRLs (Forward Facing Recognition Lights) for my R44. Back in 2013, they cost about $2,500 to buy and another $2,500 to install. They added about 15 pounds of weight to my aircraft. They have three settings: off, steady on, and pulsing. I tried them that first practice night and was extremely disappointed. They only provide significant light very close to the ground. I wound up replacing my landing lights with LED landing lights a few years later; they do a much better job lighting the area in front of me. Now I use the DeVores primarily in pulsing mode when I’m flying in crowded airspace or doing cherry drying work on a low-visibility day. I’m honestly thinking of having them pulled to get that 15 pounds back when I take my ship in for overhaul this winter. (Anyone want a deal on a pair?)

Revenue potential

In general, the revenue potential for frost control — at least the work I do in Central California — isn’t very promising. Sure, there’s standby pay, but because the pilot doesn’t actually wait around with the helicopter, it’s much lower than it is for cherry drying or other kinds of work. My contract also pays to move the helicopter onsite at the beginning of the contract and pays to get it back home at the end. It also pays a callout fee that covers the cost of me flying commercial from my home in Washington to Sacramento, renting a car, and getting a motel room. And then getting home after spending half the night sipping cold coffee in the rental car beside my helicopter. The hourly fly rate is lower than cherry drying, so I wouldn’t even make that much if I flew.

So why do I continue to do it? Mostly because I’m not doing much of anything else from late February to late April. It’s better to park the helicopter in California and collect a small check than keep it home in Washington and not collect anything. Even when I don’t fly, I’m not losing money. And I actually like spending the first month of my contract in the Sacramento area, winding down my annual snowbirding trip south. So I guess I can say that even without the big bucks, it works for me.

What do you think? Have you done any frost control work? How about sharing your experiences in the comments.

Stretch the glide

In the event of an engine failure, airplanes have a distinct advantage of being able to glide farther than helicopters, hopefully far enough for a safe forced landing.  While helicopters can’t glide as far, they do have the great benefit of being able to land with little to no groundspeed, greatly improving the survivability of those on board. The best of both worlds would be to be able to glide efficiently and then land without any groundspeed. While a helicopter is able touch down with little to no groundspeed, a glide angle of about 18 degrees won’t garner much range. However, there is a technique, not included in the FAA Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, that can be used to extend the range and in some cases help reach a more desirable landing area.

During an autorotation there are many things a pilot can do when too high; turns, slips/skids, or airspeed adjustments. However, when faced with the situation of being too low, there is only one thing a pilot can do.  Extend the autorotation glide.

There are four factors in an autorotation that affect the descent rate: density altitude, gross weight, rotor RPM, and forward airspeed.  While we can’t control density altitude or gross weight (unless jettisoning an external load), we can control rotor RPM and forward airspeed. In a forward flight autorotation one can significantly increase the range by increasing airspeed and lowering rotor RPM, while still complying with the Rotorcraft Flight Manual limitations for that particular helicopter.

Let’s take airspeed first, using the Agusta Westland 139 as an example, referring to the RFM limitations and emergency procedures sections. The AW139 has a minimum autorotational airspeed of 40 knots, a minimum rate of descent autorotational airspeed of 80 knots, and a best range autorotational airspeed of 100 knots. Some helicopters may not have a best range airspeed published, but instead a maximum autorotational airspeed. In any case, one would use the autorotational maximum airspeed or best range airspeed to extend the power-off glide. Note, the minimum rate of descent airspeed also corresponds with the best rate of climb airspeed (Vy), as this is the airspeed where the coefficient of the lift to drag ratio is highest. The farther one deviates from Vy the greater the descent rate. Know that exceeding the maximum or best range autorotation speed can cause rotor RPM decay and put undue stress on the rotor blades, and we certainly don’t want to decay rotor RPM because we want to use it for lift to extend the range in an autorotation.

We have increased speed to the maximum allowable, but are now faced with an increased descent rate as the helicopter is now faster than Vy. However, this can be compensated for by increasing collective and reducing rotor RPM to minimum allowable, which decreases the descent rate.  The AW139 has a power-off rotor RPM limitation of 95-110 percent, not counting transient limitations.  In order to maximize the autorotational range of the AW139, fly at 100 knots and 95 percent RPM. At some point with ample altitude remaining, the pilot would reduce the airspeed to the recommended 80 knots and increase the RPM to the recommended 110 percent. This provides as much energy as possible to the rotor system for landing. Aircraft vary as to how quickly they can recover rotor RPM, and while a low inertia rotor system will recover quicker it will also have less energy during pitch pull before touchdown.

There is really just one reason to fly an autorotation at the maximum airspeed and lower range of rotor RPM, and that is to increase the range of the helicopter. As we increase collective, pitch is increased and the L/D (lift drag ratio) of the rotor system becomes more efficient and more lift is produced.

Next training session, try a couple of extended range autorotations and compare them to the standard ones. Results vary with the type of helicopter, but the difference is very significant in the aircraft I have flown.  ou will likely find the rate of descent at high speed/low RPM to be even less than the rate at Vy/normal RPM. A lower descent rate coupled with a higher airspeed greatly enhances the range, which could make all the difference someday.

Markus Lavenson is currently flying for Era Helicopters as a captain in the Sikorsky S92 and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in oil and gas support missions. His varied career began shortly after graduating from the University of California at Davis, and has included everything from flight instruction and powerline patrol to HEMS and external load operations. His more than 10,000 hours of flight time comes from more than a dozen different types of helicopters and airplanes. Holding an ATP helicopter and commercial multi-engine fixed-wing, he also is a flight instructor fixed-wing and instrument flight instructor helicopters. Lavenson enjoys the intricate work of helicopter instrument flying, whether it’s to an airport on Alaska’s North Slope or one he creates to an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore.

Using a big fan

When I bought my helicopter back in 2005, I was living in the Phoenix area. Arizona is nice — in the spring, summer, and autumn. But in the summer it’s brutally hot and no amount of air conditioning (which I didn’t have in my helicopter anyway) can make it bearable when you’ve parked on the tarmac with your cockpit in the sun waiting for a client. That’s if you can get any flying work at all.

After the summer of 2005, I’d had enough of it. Since another season at the Grand Canyon was out of the question, I began looking for other work for the summer of 2006. I was hoping that a tour operator in a cooler place would need an extra ship for their busy season.

What I got instead was a call from a guy named Erik based in the Seattle area. He told me that he was doing cherry drying work every summer and was always looking for pilots to help.

Cherry drying, explained

The explanation is simple: During the last three to four weeks before harvest, cherries are susceptible to damage from rain. If water from a rainfall is allowed to sit on the fruit, it can be absorbed through the skin, causing the cherries to expand and split. Moisture on the cherries can also cause mold and mildew. Any of these things can make the cherry unsalable. If 50 percent or more of an orchard’s crop is damaged, the orchardist won’t even bother picking and the whole crop will be lost.

To protect the cherries, orchardists hire helicopter pilots to stand by in the area with their helicopters. When it rains, they call the pilots out to fly, low and slow, over the treetops. The down wash from the rotor blades blows down into the tree’s branches, causing them to wave violently and shake the water off the fruit. Many orchardists refer to this as “cherry blowing,” which is a far more accurate description of what’s being done.

About cherry drying contracts

Cherry drying is contract work. Although it’s done in California, Oregon, and Washington, most of the cherry orchards and work is in Washington. The season is relatively short, starting as early as April in California and ending as late as August in some areas of Washington. Pilots are contracted either directly by orchardists or by service providers who are contracted by the orchardists who then subcontract out to pilots. Contracts are usually no shorter than 3 weeks; most include the possibility of “extensions” that may add days or weeks to that.

During the course of the contract, the pilot is required to base himself and his aircraft in the service area and stay there. That means getting lodging nearby and a means of transportation to get to and from the helicopter. Pilots are on call any time it’s light enough to fly — unlike frost control work, which I’ll cover in my next blog post, no flying is done in the dark. In Washington in June and July, the days are very long. Following the “eight hours from bottle to throttle” rule, it’s unlikely that you’ll go out drinking with your fellow pilots in the evening; you could get called before dawn the next day.

Pilots are expected to be airborne within minutes of getting the call. For this reason, they should be keeping an eye on the weather. If rain is in the area, the pilot should have the helicopter all fueled, preflighted, and ready to go. The pilot needs to get out to the orchard needing service and get right to work flying over the trees. To do that, the pilot needs to know exactly where each of his orchards are and be familiar with their boundaries and obstacles before the first call comes.

Contract terms have two parts: standby and fly time. Standby is the amount received for having the helicopter based at or near the orchards under contract. This daily rate should cover the cost of lodging and transportation for the pilot, as well as repositioning the helicopter to and from the contract base from home. It should also provide some sort of compensation for having the helicopter offline from other work. Obviously, the longer the contract, the more standby money is available to cover costs and possibly build a profit. Fly time is straightforward: it’s hourly pay for when the helicopter is actually flying over an orchard.

The work

When I say we fly “low and slow,” I need to make it clear just how low and slow we fly. My rule of thumb is 5-10 feet off the treetops and 5-10 miles per hour (or knots). It’s not unusual for me to come back from a flight with cherry tree leaves stuck in my skids where the ground handling wheels connect to my R44. Of course, with certain types of cherries — Rainiers, for example — a pilot needs to fly higher to prevent the more delicate fruit from getting damaged. And if a pilot is flying something bigger — say a Huey or S55, both of which are used in my area of Washington — he’ll need to fly higher so he doesn’t damage the trees.

A cockpit shot during a typical cherry drying flight. Note that the sun is out and my door is off.

A cockpit shot during a typical cherry drying flight. Note that the sun is out and my door is off.

Here's an example of a track for a quick dry of a large orchard. Areas I didn't cover were already picked.

Here’s an example of a track for a quick dry of a large orchard. Areas I didn’t cover were already picked.

How a pilot flies the rows of trees is something that varies depending on how dense the trees are. That varies with height, pruning, variety, age, distance apart, etc. Flying every other row is usually enough for most orchards. It’s even overkill for others. It really depends.  Depending on the orchard layout and obstacles, an R44 can dry 30 to 50 acres in an hour. The goal is to get the fruit as dry as possible as quickly as possible.

Because yes: the click is ticking. I’ve gotten all kinds of numbers from a variety of sources, but most of them agree that the cherries need to be dried within two to three hours of getting wet. That time is shortened if it gets warm and sunny out, which it usually does.

Although it’s usually done raining when a dry call comes, some orchardists will call to begin drying when it’s still raining. Some of them do this to make sure the pilot gets to their orchards first — with several (or even many) orchards assigned to a pilot, there’s a real competition between orchardists to get their pilot before another orchardist does. Sometimes a pilot will have to fly through a storm to get to an orchard on the other side of it where the rain has already stopped. (I’ve flown through more thunderstorms than I care to remember just getting from one orchard to another.) Sometimes a pilot will be halfway through an orchard when another rainstorm moves in; what he does then depends on orders from the person who hired him.

A fly call can come as early as 4 a.m. if it rained overnight. That doesn’t mean a pilot has to launch then, but it does mean he has to get ready to launch. I’ve spent more than a few predawn minutes sitting in my cockpit, waiting to see the horizon so I could crank the engine and prepare to depart. The earliest I’ve ever been over an orchard was 4:30 a.m.; although it was still quite dark, I was very familiar with the orchard and felt confident about flying it with the aid of my landing lights. Other times, I’ve flown past sunset. My rule is: if I can see, I’ll fly. When I can’t see, it’s time to go back to base.

When the sun comes out during a flight — which it almost always does — it can get unbelievably hot in the cockpit. It’s a miserable feeling to have stinging sweat dripping off your forehead and into your eyes and not be able to use either hand to wipe the sweat away. For this reason, I always fly with one door off. No matter how cold and cloudy and possibly even still rainy it is when I launch, I’ll be very glad I took that door off when the sun comes out.

Skilled pilots needed

The flying is intense. Both hands and feet are on the controls making tiny adjustments to all flight controls for hours at a time. Excellent hovering skills and familiarity with the aircraft are vital. A tailwind will have a pilot working the pedals just to keep flying straight. And if the orchard is on a hill, there’s plenty of sideways flying to keep the tail rotor out of the trees when flying downhill in order to remain close enough to the trees to stay effective.

Obstacles can include power lines, sometimes with poles right in the orchard.

Obstacles can include power lines, sometimes with poles right in the orchard.

With cherry trees 10 to 30 feet tall, all flights are well within the Deadman’s Curve. No doubt about it: if there’s  an engine failure, the helicopter is going down into the trees. The pilot has to hope the trees break the fall and keep the main rotor blades from entering the cockpit. (That’s one of the reasons I fly over aisles between trees and not the trees themselves.) Pilots who are squeamish about things like this need not apply.

The flying can be dangerous, especially when pilots lack the required skills or become too complacent to stay focused. We normally have at least one bad crash a year. Want to read up on some of the accidents? Here are some links to get you started; the two Sikorsky crashes happened on the same day:

(*Apparently, some operators are conducting “training” flights while on actual cherry drying missions. I think this is a huge mistake.)

Finally, drying cherries is not a time-building job. My first season, back in 2008, was 7 weeks long. During that time, I flew about 5 hours. The following year I had 11 weeks of contract work and also flew only 5 hours. Since then, it’s been a bit rainier each season, but I still average less than 3 hours of flight time per week. Last year was especially disappointing, with two of my pilots not getting any flight time at all.

Getting Started

If you like what you’ve read and think you want to try a season of cherry drying, the best way to get started is to keep your ears open for service providers looking for helicopters. Unfortunately, they’re not looking for pilots unless those pilots can bring a helicopter. So don’t bother calling around unless you also have a helicopter lined up to bring with you.

R44 helicopters are the ones most commonly used for cherry drying. Why? Because they’re cheap to operate and they move a lot of air. (I’ll argue that they move as much air as a JetRanger.) Generally anything relatively large with a two-bladed rotor system will do the job well. R22s are too small to cover a large orchard quickly, although they’re handy for small orchards with lots of obstacles and tight space. Ditto for Schweizers, although I think they push more air than R22s. The owners of large orchards prefer larger helicopters because they can blow more cherries faster.

Most service providers hire pilots/helicopters for a minimum contract term of three weeks with an option to extend by days or weeks as needed. In most cases, need is determined by the acres of unpicked cherries and the upcoming weather forecast. Each pilot gets a handful of orchard photos or Google satellite view images with coordinates and is expected to learn them. There usually isn’t any overlap; a pilot is responsible for just his orchards. That’s a two-edged sword: if it rains in a pilot’s area, he can do a lot of flying. If it rains elsewhere, he won’t do any flying at all.

I work my contracts with other pilots work a little differently. Last season, I hired four guys to work with me with contracts of at least four weeks each. We work together in two teams serving two different geographical areas. Each team knows where all the orchards are in their area. When the calls start coming, I start dispatching us to orchards. My goal is to to provide my clients with the fastest service possible, making the most of my assets (the pilots and their helicopters). If only one big orchard gets rained on, it’s not usual for me to put two or even three helicopters on it. But if rain is widespread, so are we — covering individual orchards as quickly as we can. Although I try to dispatch based on area, when there’s a lot of rain, all of the helicopters are in the air, even if that means a pilot has to fly across town to get to the next orchard that needs attention.

Of course, of the two areas we serve, one didn’t get any rain at all. Those two pilots didn’t fly; it simply didn’t make sense to fly them to the other area where they might have gotten an hour or two of flight time. But if a pilot can’t make it work financially based on the standby portion of the contract, he probably shouldn’t bother taking the contract at all. You have to go into a contract assuming it won’t rain — and be very happy when it does.

When the weather is clear and sunny and there’s no rain in the forecast, pilots are pretty much free to do whatever they like — as long as they watch the weather and can get back to base in a hurry if things change. Hiking, bicycling, swimming, paddling — there’s plenty to do in the area to keep busy. I used to think of it as a paid vacation with a handful of days when I needed to work. While it isn’t for every pilot, I certainly enjoy it.

How does one weigh a log?

We all know it is the pilot’s responsibility to insure the helicopter is flown in accordance to limitations, which in part requires knowing the helicopters takeoff weight. However, due to the versatile nature of helicopters it isn’t always as simple as back in flight school. We may find ourselves picking up a sling load such as a log. How does one weigh a log? A dozen passengers off a ship. Ever try to use a scale on a heaving ship? Or out in the bush of Alaska picking up crew and equipment.,What scale?  One aspect that goes along with flying the ultimate off-road vehicle is that we may find ourselves in places without scales.

If conducting an external load operation and the aircraft has a load meter installed, the pilot simply monitors the gauge as the load is lifted  A load meter is basically a scale, which measures the weight on the cargo hook. Prior to attempting the lift the pilot should do some quick math to determine the maximum allowable load, which must not be exceeded.  This maximum allowable load is the aircraft maximum gross weight subtracted by the aircraft actual takeoff weight without the external load. When hovering over the load, the pilot slowly increases collective, and tension is gradually increased on the sling. The load gauge is monitored to insure it does not exceed the maximum allowable load, and the helicopter will not exceed its maximum gross weight. In this case the center of gravity is not a concern, as cargo hooks are positioned longitudinally to not appreciably affect CG. If the CG was calculated to be good without the load, it should be good with the load.

sling load

An AW139 lifts a daisy chain sling load on the North Slope of Alaska. This helicopter has a load cell and so the pilots were able to monitor and verify the weight of the cargo.



Most helicopters are not flying sling loads nor have a load cell installed, so we need another method of weight verification. Fortunately some performance charts can be used for this purpose. Performance charts are predictive, enabling a pilot to accurately determine variables prior to takeoff and many can be used in a variety of ways depending on which variables are known. The Sikorsky S-92 flight manual makes this an easy process, with the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect chart. One can predict what the indicated torque per engine will be for a specific weight, density altitude and wind condition. In this example, a negative 3,000-foot density altitude with a 10-knot headwind would equal 66 percent per engine torque for a gross weight of 23,000 pounds. For the same density altitude and wind condition, 83 percent per engine torque would indicate the maximum gross weight of 27,700 pounds is being exceeded. Using the chart it’s easy to see that that 1,000 pounds is equivalent to about 3.5 percent per engine torque, for a given density altitude and wind condition.

Using the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect, one can obtain the predicted torque for the S92 at a specific aircraft weight, density altitude and wind condition.

Using the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect, one can obtain the predicted torque for the S92 at a specific aircraft weight, density altitude and wind condition.


If the aircraft lacks this type of chart, a little m,ore work is necessary. The takeoff and maximum continuous power Hover in Ground Effect charts also provide maximum weights for a range of density altitudes. This gives a start for making your own quick reference chart, and after a couple dozen flights you can add more data points with other power settings. Say you flew 500 lbs under gross weight with a 1000-foot density altitude; simply note the torque in a stable in ground effect hover and enter the torque, density altitude, and weight on your quick reference chart. Over time, you will have created a chart to use as an aid when you are unsure of the aircraft takeoff weight. An external load pilot, without a load cell may opt to use a HOGE (hover out of ground effect) chart instead of a HIGE chart. Experienced pilots with a lot of time-in-type already have a pretty good idea of the power required for specific weights and density altitudes, which is essentially what this quick reference chart provides.

The pilot should also note the cyclic position necessary to maintain a stable position over the ground, providing an indication of the aircraft’s center of gravity. An excessive lateral or longitudinal deviation from a normal position can indicate a CG out of normal range. Wind can also effect the cyclic position, but experience in type will help you learn what a normal cyclic flight control position should be in a variety of conditions. For example, a farther forward and left cyclic position than normal would indicate an aft and right CG, which a left quartering headwind could also cause.

These methods are certainly not a substitute for a proper weight and balance calculation using accurate weights. They are a means of verifying your calculations, particularly when in situations where the weights provided may be in question. It is also a means of understanding the performance of your helicopter better.

Markus Lavenson is currently flying for Era Helicopters as a captain in the Sikorsky S92 and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in oil and gas support missions. His varied career began shortly after graduating from the University of California at Davis, and has included everything from flight instruction and powerline patrol to HEMS and external load operations. His more than 10,000 hours of flight time comes from more than a dozen different types of helicopters and airplanes. Holding an ATP helicopter and commercial multi-engine fixed-wing, he also is a flight instructor fixed-wing and instrument flight instructor helicopters. Lavenson enjoys the intricate work of helicopter instrument flying, whether it’s to an airport on Alaska’s North Slope or one he creates to an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore.

What’s in a name?

AgustaWestland is no more. Well, it still exists, but we’ve been told to now call it Finmeccanica Helicopters. This is a bit of a “me too” moment after the announcement last year that Eurocopter parent Airbus would be naming all its machines Airbus Helicopters. To be fair, the Finmeccanica transition has been in place for some time, and the name change is one part of a larger plan to realign the business units.

It’s AOPA’s policy to identify aircraft via the preference of the current type certificate holder. It’s something we spend too much time thinking about. Cessna’s recent acquistion of Beechcraft is a good example. Do we call it Cessna-Beechcraft, Textron Aviation, or just stick with Cessna? The folks at Textron (or is it Cessna?) don’t make it much easier. In ads you’re seeing Textron Aviation, but they want individual products refered to as Cessnas and Beechcraft. While confusing, the reasoning is sound. The names Cessna and Beechcraft carry weight, and dropping them would mean dropping a century worth of credibility, history, and maybe even a little romance. Meanwhile, keeping them and bringing in Textron gives the feeling there is more to it. Even if you don’t know what Textron is, you sense there’s a bigger presence there somewhere, which is exactly what they are going for.

Then there’s Airbus and Finmeccanica. Both decided to drop their longstanding brands and go straight to the parent company. With Airbus we lost Eurocopter and a few other notable brands, and replaced it with the decidedly boring bus in the sky. If you set out to kill the romance of aviation, inserting “bus” is an effective way to do it. While the name change does offer the benefit of cleaning up what had become a really confusing nomenclature (the Dauphin will be replaced by the H160, for example) buying or flying an “Airbus” just isn’t as thrilling as  Eurocopter, Aerospatiale, and so on.

With Finmeccanica the challenge is a little more subtle. The company had already inserted itself into the AgustaWestland name by tagging on “a Finmeccanica company.” This worked well. You got the idea there was more to AW, but you kept the 90-year history of Agusta and 50-year history of Westland. It was a modern marriage that flowed off the tongue nicely. No more. The parent has spoken, and we’ll now have the Finmeccanica 189, 139, and others. Although, the website still calls them the AW189, AW139, respectively. I guess that means we’ll have to call them the Finmeccanica AW189, AW obviously short for AgustaWestland.

Interestingly, Lockheed Martin chose to take a meshed approach when it acquired Sikorsky last year by ditching Sikorsky’s winged S logo and replacing it with Lockheed Martin’s star. They also added the tagline “A Lockheed Martin company.” Given recent history, it may only be a matter of time before we have the Lockheed Martin S-76 though.

Staying Alive in a Two Dimensional World

Winter is coming, so I thought it a good time to touch on an optical illusion called flat light. Though it is more prevalent during winter months, it can occur any time of year.

For VFR flight, we need to see enough of the ground as a reference to control the aircraft and to avoid terrain, which is the problem with this illusion. Those of us who fly in Arctic regions take flat light very seriously, but it can also occur at lower latitudes.

If you haven’t experienced it personally, flat light can be difficult to appreciate. While horizontal visibility may often be very good–like being able to see a mountain range 50 miles away–when looking down one is unable to focus on the ground.  Imagine being able to see the ground, without having the depth perception necessary to determine exactly how far away it really is. In a flat light condition your height above the ground determination may be off by as much as 2,000 feet!

The problem stems from the limitations of how we perceive our world. Our brain acts as a video processor and models an image based on raw data received from the retina via the optical nerve. We only see .0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light in the near ultraviolet class, and that data is badly pixilated with a hole in it. The hole, commonly referred to as the blind spot, is due to a lack of light receptors where the optic nerve attaches to the retina. Even when we close one eye we don’t see the blind spot because our brain is very good at interpolating data. It simply fills in the picture with what it calculates should be there. An interesting experiment demonstrating the brain’s imaging capability is when people are fitted with special glasses, turning the images they see upside down. After a time, the brain makes the correction and everything is right side up.  That is until the glasses are taken off, when the image once again goes upside down until the brain can once again adapt.

If that wasn’t problematic enough, the best part of our field of view with good resolution is very narrow. Based around the retina center, it is about 1 degree, or about an inch using the distance from the pilot to the aircraft instrument panel. Now you know why our instructors always stressed a proper scan! As humans, we are stuck with these sensory capabilities, which unfortunately don’t serve well flying in a flat light environment.

Flat light typically occurs during winter with overcast skies and a snow-covered ground. The combination of a very reflective white surface and a lack of direct sunlight turns our 3-dimensional world into one that looks 2-dimensional. There are no shadows or contrast, which are necessary for depth perception. Rock, trees, rivers, buildings, and roads can all provide the pilot with a much needed depth reference. Knowing this, a prudent pilot flying over a large flat white valley may opt to fly along an area with objects providing contrast, such as a rocky ridgeline.

One of the things that makes flat light so dangerous is its insidious nature. The pilot thinks he can see the ground and judge the altitude. Others may be convinced that if it’s daytime and there isn’t a ground obscuration, such as fog or blowing snow that they will be able to see the ground well enough to avoid crashing into it.


Loss of direct sunlight due to an overcast cloud layer over flat terrain covered with snow results in ideal conditions for flat light.

Losing sunlight over flat terrain covered with snow is an ideal conditions for flat light.

The closer one is to the ground the more dangerous the situation, as during takeoffs and landings.  You may have just landed on snow covered terrain with the sun shining, only to find 15 minutes later the sun has dipped below a ridge or been covered by a passing cloud.  You are now enveloped in a shadow of flat light where an attempted takeoff could be very dangerous. This is a case where you are better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air, rather than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.

There was an incident in 1999, when a company crashed three helicopters in one day and all on the same glacier due to flat light. The first helicopter encountered flat light on the glacier and experienced a hard landing, injuring the pilot and passengers. With the first aircraft overdue, a second helicopter was dispatched to search, which also crashed on the same ice field. A third helicopter began to search for the two missing aircraft, which also ended up crashing on the same glacier. The pilot of the third helicopter reported that he thought he was 500 feet above the ground when the aircraft impacted the ground.

These were experienced pilots who had been flying tours over this glacier day after day. They didn’t become less experienced in a day and the glacier didn’t change. What changed were the lighting conditions. It can be hard to accept that at times one can see the ground without enough depth perception to know how far below it really is. Without instrumentation such as a radar altimeter or TAWS (terrain avoidance warning system), the pilot won’t even realize it’s happening.

Anywhere, anytime

Vermilion Bay, on the shores of Louisiana, is so notorious with Gulf of Mexico helicopter pilots that it is commonly referred to as “Vertigo Bay.” The bay’s water has a reddish brown color, and when coupled with an overcast cloud layer, low visibility, and no wind it presents a significant hazard to VFR flight. It is the same effect you get in a room with a full-sized wall mirror when it gives the illusion of the room being much bigger than it really is. Vertigo Bay is so large that with visibility less than 5 miles you can’t see land, and without any wind the highly reflective mirror-like water provides no contrast, but instead reflects the cloud layer from above. When these adverse conditions exist, VFR helicopter pilots circumnavigate the bay sticking close to the contrast of the shoreline.


Highly reflective mirror-like water will reflect the cloud layer from above, making it difficult for the pilot to judge the height visually.  This is the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and though the water is reflecting the cloud layer from above, the sandbars, ship and distant ice pack help provide contrast for the pilot.

Highly reflective mirror-like water will reflect the cloud layer from above, making it difficult for the pilot to judge the height visually. This is the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and although the water is reflecting the cloud layer from above, the sandbars, ship and distant ice pack help provide contrast.

Avoidance is the certainly the best remedy for flat light. Understanding the environmental conditions where flat light can exist helps the pilot in early recognition and avoidance. Study the terrain along the planned route of flight, including possible areas where you may divert. Review weather reports and forecasts to determine what lighting conditions will exist on the flight. Avoid flying over large expanses of water without wind to ripple the surface and direct sunlight to provide contrast. Stay clear of takeoffs or landings or any low-level flight over large areas of white snow without some direct sunlight. Flat light is a condition where a conservative approach is best, using your superior judgment to avoid the necessity of using your superior skill.

(These views and opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Era.)

Markus Lavenson is currently flying for Era Helicopters as a captain in the Sikorsky S92 and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in oil and gas support missions. His varied career began shortly after graduating from the University of California at Davis, and has included everything from flight instruction and powerline patrol to HEMS and external load operations. His more than 10,000 hours of flight time comes from more than a dozen different types of helicopters and airplanes. Holding an ATP helicopter and commercial multi-engine fixed-wing, he also is a flight instructor fixed-wing and instrument flight instructor helicopters. Lavenson enjoys the intricate work of helicopter instrument flying, whether it’s to an airport on Alaska’s North Slope or one he creates to an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore.

I can hear the radios and smell the smoke

Meet Joe Kline.

I first met Kline 15 years ago, and recently had the pleasure of seeing him again. His art brings to life and honors those who lived and died flying the helicopters of the Vietnam War.

Joe is an acclaimed artist painting military aircraft and the people who crewed them. His primary focus is on Army helicopters of Vietnam where he served in the 101st Airborne. His paintings grace the rooms of several museums, including the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.


Joe’s father was a bombardier on a B-25 Mitchell during World War II, so it was only natural he grew up with a passion for military aviation. During the Vietnam War Joe joined the Army and tested high for a mechanical aptitude. He was assigned to helicopter maintenance unit in Qui Nhon, but he wanted to fly.  Joe soon got his wish and was transferred to Camp Eagle in Hue. He was now in the esteemed 101st Airborne, as a crew chief and door gunner of a Bell UH1 Huey.

While in the 101st Joe saw a lot of action and was involved in the Lam Son 719 offensive in 1971, where 10 percent of the total helicopter losses of the war occurred. While he managed to get some photographs, there wasn’t a lot of time nor was it the place for his artistic talents. The 101st did not encourage nose art on the aircraft, but Joe did manage to design and paint a few unit emblems.

Joe Kline

Joe Kline

Joe now honors those who served by creating historically accurate paintings. He tells me he must be completely accurate, if a rivet is out of place or a control surface in the incorrect position for a particular regime of flight, he will hear about it from someone.

Joe gets the most satisfaction when his art touches people and helps them reconnect. He once painted a Huey, hovering full of ground troops taking an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) while a gunship provided cover from above. Like all his paintings, this was a true event that took place in 1967. It appeared on the cover of Vietnam magazine and was recognized by one of the survivors. The gunship pilot saw the picture and began reaching out to the others.  He eventually reunited with the copilot of the downed Huey, and in turn contacted other survivors of that tragic day.

In addition to reuniting people, Joe gets satisfaction when a veteran stares at his work and quietly says, “I can hear the radios and smell the smoke.”

You see some of Joe’s work at

Markus Lavenson is currently flying for Era Helicopters as a captain in the Sikorsky S92 and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in oil and gas support missions. His varied career began shortly after graduating from the University of California at Davis, and has included everything from flight instruction and powerline patrol to HEMS and external load operations. His more than 10,000 hours of flight time comes from more than a dozen different types of helicopters and airplanes. Holding an ATP helicopter and commercial multi-engine fixed-wing, he also is a flight instructor fixed-wing and instrument flight instructor helicopters. Lavenson enjoys the intricate work of helicopter instrument flying, whether it’s to an airport on Alaska’s North Slope or one he creates to an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore.
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